The Mysteries Behind the Beloved Irish Ballad "Danny Boy"

Aug 30, 2018

Opera star Renée Fleming sang the Irish ballad "Danny Boy" at the memorial service for the late U.S. Sen. John McCain on Saturday, September 1, 2018. Senator McCain, who died August 25 of brain cancer, asked that Ms. Fleming sing the song at his memorial service, which will took place at the Washington National Cathedral.

WRTI looks at the origins of this beautiful ballad, its mysteries, and why it is sung during times of mourning.

Although the song “Danny Boy” has come to symbolize the Irish Diaspora and Irish national pride, its author was not Irish at all. Frederic Edward Weatherly (1848-1929) was a busy English lawyer who also wrote novels, children’s books, libretti, and the lyrics to some 1500 ballads and songs.

“Holy City” and “Roses of Picardy” are among his most popular creations, but none captured the world’s imagination like “Danny Boy.”

Weatherly penned the two stanzas of “Danny Boy” in 1910. His words did not find their musical counterpart until a couple of years later, when his Irish sister-in-law sent him the music to a folk tune she’d heard, hoping he could write lyrics for it.

Perhaps not realizing that the tune had been set by some 90 other lyricists, or that Australian composer Percy Grainger had a few years earlier orchestrated an arrangement of it, Weatherly decided his “Danny Boy” would fit this tune perfectly. His publisher Boosey accepted his marriage of words to tune; paired, words and melody achieved a success that neither could have reached on their own.

Mystery surrounds the origins of the tune itself. Some say a Celtic harpist played it as early as the 1600s. Others say it originated in the Scottish Highlands. It first appeared in print in George Petrie’s Ancient Airs of Ireland, in which Dr. Petrie credited a Miss Jane Ross, of County Derry (also known as County Londonderry,) Ireland, for notating this “Londonderry Air” after hearing it played by an unnamed blind fiddler.

 

But perhaps the greatest mystery about “Danny Boy” is its meaning. Who is Danny? Who’s singing to him, and why must he leave? Why will he and the narrator likely never see each other again? 

 

This ambiguity, this very universal lament about separation and the finality of death, and the greater power of love, has spoken to people of many nationalities and faiths, and to artists and singers from nearly every genre of music.

From John McCormack to Bill Evans, to the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, Johnny Cash, Elvis, Joan Baez, Patti LaBelle and innumerable others, “Danny Boy” expresses what Weatherly knew: that unlike the deepest philosophy, history, or sermon, “song and story appeal to the heart. From the heart they come and to the heart they must go.”

 

Oh, Danny boy, the pipes, the pipes are calling

From glen to glen and down the mountain side

The summer's gone and all the roses falling

It's you, it's you, must go and I must bide

But come ye back when summer's in the meadow

Or when the valley's hushed and white with snow

I'll be here in sunshine or in shadow

Oh, Danny boy, oh, Danny boy, I love you so

 

But when ye come and all the flowers are dying

If I am dead and dead I well may be

You'll come and find the place where I am lying

And kneel and say an 'Ave' there for me

 

And I shall hear tho' soft you tread above me

And all my grave will warmer, sweeter be

For you will bend and tell me that you love me

And I shall sleep in peace until you come to me

 

Listen to WRTI 90.1 for musical treasures on Saturday Morning Classical Coffeehouse with Debra Lew Harder, 6 AM to noon.